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April 2004
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Sshhh. Aircraft landing...

The Silent Aircraft Initiative

The Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) is today launching a unique project to design a 'silent' aircraft.

CMI's 'Silent Aircraft' project has a bold aim: to discover ways to reduce aircraft noise dramatically, to the point where it would be virtually unnoticeable to people outside the airport perimeter in a typical built-up area.

This initiative is bringing together leading academics from Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with representatives from all parts of the civil aerospace/aviation industry. This unique community will be working together, sharing knowledge and developing the design for an aircraft whose noise emissions would barely be heard above the background noise level in a typical built-up area.

Partners in the project include British Airways, the Civil Aviation Authority, regional aerospace company Marshall of Cambridge, and National Air Traffic Services. They also include Rolls-Royce plc, which has made available its multi-million pound suite of design and analysis tools to help the research. Additionally, the project team plans to include representatives of community groups opposed to aircraft noise.

CMI's 'Silent Aircraft' initiative is one of four new Knowledge Integration Communities (KICs) that CMI is setting up this autumn. These KICs aim to find new ways in which academia and industry can work together and exchange knowledge to push forward research in areas where UK industry has a demonstrable competitive position - like aerospace. The Silent Aircraft KIC also aims to enhance this position by engaging with youngsters of all ages to enthuse them about aviation, and thus help ensure a continuing supply of talented individuals into the industry in years to come.

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Mitochondrial Mutations Blamed for Aging

Scientific American

Despite the search for the fountain of youth, growing older remains inevitable.

Some biochemical effects of aging are thought to relate to cell structures called mitochondria, thousands of which are present in every cell. Mitochondria are the cell's energy converters and have their own DNA. Scientists have long known that mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) become increasingly common in older animals, but they have not been able to determine whether such mutations are a cause of aging or an effect.

To answer this question, Aleksandra Trifunovic of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and her colleagues genetically engineered a line of mice to carry a compromised version of an enzyme called DNA polymerase-gamma, which normally proofreads mitochondrial DNA to ensure proper replication and aids in DNA repair.

Subsequent tests of the transgenic animals' brain, heart and liver cells revealed three to five times as many errors in their mtDNA as in that of normal mice. By 25 weeks of age, young adulthood for rodents, the mutants began to develop hallmark signs of aging, including heart problems, osteoporosis, baldness and reduced fertility. None of them lived more than 60 weeks, the researchers report today in Nature. Normal mice, in contrast, live 100 weeks on average.

Future experiments can use the prematurely aging mice to study how growing old "can be counteracted by genetic, pharmacological, or dietary interventions," the team writes.

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Big Stars. Really Big.

New Scientist

Astronomers hunting massive stars in a bid to understand the early Universe have set a new record.

In April, Gregor Rauw, of the University of Liege in Belgium, and colleagues suggested that an object called WR 20a in the constellation Carina could be two giant stars orbiting each other. That would explain its otherwise puzzling spectrum of light. Now further observations by Alceste Bonanos and colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, show Rauw's team were right.

They analysed the variation in brightness of WR 20a for 17 nights using the 1.3-metre Warsaw telescope at the Los Campanas Observatory in La Serena, Chile. The observations indicate that each star weighs 80 solar masses - the previous record was about 60 solar masses. The pair take just 3.7 days to orbit their common centre and partially eclipse each other every orbit.

It is the dimming of light caused by the partial eclipses that enables astronomers to determine their mass and orbit. "We can only measure masses of stars accurately in binary systems," says Bonanos.

Finding and weighing giant stars has become a major activity for astronomers who want to know if the first generation of stars could have been short-lived giants up to 300 times the mass of our Sun.

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Private schools face charity test

BBC Education

Private schools which are registered as charities could be forced to show they benefit the public under government plans.

About 80% of independent schools are listed as charities, gaining tax benefits. Under the draft Charities Bill just published, those seeking charitable status will have to show they benefit "the public at large". The plans could put pressure on fee-paying schools to offer more places to children from less well-off families. Independent Schools say they are confident they can be seen as benefiting the public.

Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that public schools could demonstrate they were doing enough to benefit the public at large.

"We educate half a million children at no cost to the taxpayer. If the taxpayer had to pay for those children, it would add 2bn to the tax bill," he said.

Under the Bill, the Charity Commission would be expected to devise a test of "public benefit" which all charities would be expected to pass. Fiona MacTaggart, the Home Office Minister with responsibility for charities, said the point of the Bill was to make sure charities' abilities to do good are protected. "We must protect the charity brand so that people are confident about giving money to charities and know what is and isn't a charity," she said.

Ms Mactaggart rejected claims that fee-charging institutions, such as independent schools or private hospitals, do not serve the public interest because they are not available to all. "I do not believe that charging means you do not automatically provide a public benefit," she said.

Earlier in May, public schools were warned they could lose their charitable status unless they did more to help their local communities. Some do already open up their facilities to neighbouring state schools or the community in general. The government is trying to encourage co-operation and sharing of resources and even lessons between state and private schools. Dulwich College has announced plans to open its own state comprehensive in east London.

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RFID readers shrink


The world's smallest and lowest-cost 13.56MHz RFID reader has been developed by Innovision Research & Technology plc. The RFID reader module, known as io, is expected to have a unit cost one-tenth of existing readers and will extend the potential of RFID into completely new areas including consumer, healthcare, transport and logistics products.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) readers allow devices to wirelessly interrogate and write to minute data tags that can be embedded into any device, triggering the immediate transfer of digitised information. RFID-enabled devices can contain information such as what they are, where they have been or even where they are intended to go.

Smaller than a coin, io features an on-board RISC processor, making it ideal for small-footprint devices. Combined with its low power consumption and intelligent power management, io is especially suited for small, battery-powered handheld devices. It is optimised for a 2.8V battery operation.

The io reader's small size, low cost and future-proofing for the emerging Near Field Communications (NFC) standards opens up the possibility of RFID applications in completely new areas such as healthcare and consumer goods, where the size, power consumption and cost of readers have previously been prohibitive. For example by passing your MP3 player with its built-in io reader over an NFC-enabled music poster, you could download a sample track from the advertised album instantly or even purchase the entire CD.

Other possible applications include mass-transit ticketing and baggage/parcel management systems.

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Fight Noise With Noise

The New York Times

THE constant drone of a computer cooling fan can be annoying. But a professor at Brigham Young University has taken an unusual step to mute this noise: more noise, produced in just the right quantities from tiny loudspeakers that surround the fan.

"We make anti-noise," said Scott D. Sommerfeldt, a physicist who created a noise suppression system with his students. It is the latest example of a technology called active noise reduction, or noise cancellation, well known from its use in headphones designed to block out the low rumble of jet engines.

The sound waves engineered by Dr. Sommerfeldt are out of phase with sound waves from the fan and thus they cancel each other out, substantially reducing fan noise.

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Small networks of the mind...

New Scientist

If you recall this sentence a few seconds from now, you can thank a simple network of neurons for the experience. That is the conclusions of researchers who have built a computer model that can reproduce an important aspect of short-term memory.

The key, they say, is that the neurons form a "small world" network. Small-world networks are surprisingly common. Human social networks, for example, famously connect any two people on Earth - or any actor to Kevin Bacon - in six steps or less.

Properties like this have made them the focus of much research. It turns out that regardless of the size of these networks, any two points within them are always linked by only a small number of steps.

Now it looks as if working memory, which allows short-term recall of fleetingly remembered information such as phone numbers, relies on the same property. This type of memory resides in an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in learning, planning and many higher cognitive functions.

The late Patricia Goldman-Rakic of Yale University School of Medicine and others have suggested that neurons in this region might be able to switch between two stable states, a property called bistability. When storing a memory, neurons would participate in self-sustaining bursts of electrical activity. When not involved in memory storage, the neurons become quiet.

Just how the brain controls this behaviour has puzzled neuroscientists. The prefrontal cortex is home to a wide variety of neurons with different properties, such as response to different chemical signals and the ability to activate or inhibit neighbouring neurons. So researchers have resorted to equally complex computer models.

Now a team at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has reproduced the behaviour with the simplest of networks - by connecting it together to form a small world. "The philosophical conclusion is that connectivity matters," says team member Sara Solla. "Our model uses only a simple caricature of neurons, yet this network shows this working memory-like behaviour."

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Antibiotics linked to huge rise in allergies

New Scientist

I spent this afternoon watching my cricket team lose to Magdelene College School (MCS). MCS were a very good side and my team put up a good fight.

A parent on the boundary turned out to be a leading researcher into asthma and allergies. He gave me an excellent layman's briefing, and outlined the apparent problems caused by our children being too clean, too well protected and too heavily medicated.

It seems that health care is like parenting. If you protect your children too much they never learn to stand up for themselves...

So maybe it wasn't altogether a bad thing that my side lost on this occasion. It should make them stronger in the long run.

The increasing use of antibiotics to treat disease may be responsible for the rising rates of asthma and allergies. By upsetting the body's normal balance of gut microbes, antibiotics may prevent our immune system from distinguishing between harmless chemicals and real attacks.

"The microbial gut flora is an arm of the immune system," says Gary Huffnagle at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour. His research group has provided the first experimental evidence in mice that upsetting the gut flora can provoke an allergic response.

Asthma has increased by around 160 per cent globally in the last 20 years. Currently about a quarter of schoolchildren in the US and a third of those in the UK have the condition, but pinning down the causes of the rise has proved difficult. Some researchers have blamed modern dust-free homes, while others have pointed to diet.

Antibiotics have been implicated by some epidemiological studies. For example, the rise in allergies and asthma has tracked widespread antibiotic use. Furthermore, research in Berlin, Germany, has found that both antibiotic treatment and asthma were low in the east compared to the west when the wall came down.

As antibiotic use has increased in the east though, so has asthma. This study is particularly valuable because the politically divided populations were genetically very similar and enjoyed much the same menu.

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Israel lays claim to Palestine's water

New Scientist

Countries have a nasty habit of going to war over food, oil and water... let's hope Science can provide solutions faster than the politicians...

Israel has drawn up a secret plan for a giant desalination plant to supply drinking water to the Palestinian territory on the West Bank. It hopes the project will diminish pressure for it to grant any future Palestinian state greater access to the region's scarce supplies of fresh water.

Under an agreement signed a decade ago as part of the Oslo accord, four-fifths of the West Bank's water is allocated to Israel, though the aquifers that supply it are largely replenished by water falling onto Palestinian territory.

The new plans call for seawater to be desalinated at Caesaria on the Mediterranean coast, and then pumped into the West Bank, where a network of pipes will deliver it to large towns and many of the 250 villages that currently rely on local springs and small wells for their water.

Israel, which wants the US to fund the project, would guarantee safe passage of the water across its territory in return for an agreement that Israel can continue to take the lion's share of the waters of the West Bank. These mainly comprise underground reserves such as the western aquifer, the region's largest, cleanest and most reliable water source.

For Israelis, agreement on the future joint management of this aquifer is a prerequisite for granting Palestine statehood.

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